Facebook took down the poll on Monday, as soon as officials at the popular social-networking site learned about it. The Secret Service is investigating who posted that poll, and how serious a threat that person (or people) represents to the president.
But a larger question remains: Is the nation in an up-cycle of vitriol against the president and government in general? The short answer is yes.
Not only has Mr. Obama faced a wave of threats to his safety since early in his presidential campaign and continuing into his presidency, but the federal government also now faces a resurgence of the so-called militia movement, according to organizations that track hate groups.
“It would be analogous to what we saw in the mid-'90s, where there were economic issues and dissatisfaction against the government in general,” says Deborah Lauter, civil rights director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Of course, what’s different today is that we have a president who’s African-American. And the rhetoric is some of the worst we’ve ever seen.”
Adding fuel to the fire is the proliferation of media, including social-networking sites, that make it easy for like-minded people to “congregate” and for conspiracy theories to abound.
“Our concern is that we’re seeing [harsh language] not only from those we would deem extremist … but also that their rhetoric seems to be infecting mainstream America,” says Ms. Lauter.
Violence or threats of violence against presidents and other government figures is as old as the republic. And, historians say, times of social change and economic uncertainty raise the specter of political violence.
The Facebook poll framed the question “Should Obama be killed?” around the issue of healthcare. The choices were “yes,” “maybe,” “if he cuts my healthcare,” and “no.” More than 730 people responded to the poll before it was taken down; the responses are unavailable.
The Secret Service does not release statistics on threats to the president’s safety, but there’s no doubt that a combination of factors – the deep economic recession, the president’s race, concerns over illegal immigration, and the rise of hateful rhetoric – heightens the sense of danger.
“This is worse than the '90s,” says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “People who are angry – if they can get to a president who’s hated, they’ll hit him. But if not, they’ll hit a symbol. And that can be a wider [range of targets] than people think: a church, a city hall, a congressman.”
In April, a man in Pittsburgh killed three police officers, reportedly because he was upset over losing his job and afraid that Obama planned to curtail gun rights. Earlier this month, a Kentucky census worker was found dead hanging from a tree, the word “fed” reportedly written on his chest. The FBI is still determining whether the man was murdered.
In the case of the Facebook poll, at least one mystery has been solved: the identity of the computer programmer who developed the software used to create the poll.
But the identity of the poll’s creator remains a mystery.
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